There is such a thing in life as caring too much.
So when you run the Montreal Canadiens, tempering the expectations of a rabid, heavily-invested fan base is delicate business.
It has also become an annual late-summer rite.
General manager Marc Bergevin isn’t saying his NHL team, second in the Eastern Conference in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, is suddenly about to start failing – nor is he musing about contending for a Stanley Cup.
“We have a ways to go. We’re building, we’re moving forward, but it’s a process,” he said at the team’s annual charity golf tournament.
Bergevin indicated the Habs’ main division rivals after the off-season realignment – Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings – have all retooled considerably and “nothing will come easily.”
The Habs have added some pieces as well, although it can be argued enforcer George Parros and hulking defenceman Douglas Murray amount to doodling on the margins.
Bergevin said: “I think we’re better, too.” And he’s done what he can under a shrinking salary cap, pointing out he’ll soon need to dole out hefty raises to key young players P.K. Subban and Lars Eller.
Subban, voted the league’s best defenceman last season, is out of contract next summer, although it’s not something he’s keen on discussing. When asked if he’d negotiate during the season, the 24-year-old demurred.
“This is all new to me. Right now, the best thing I can do is just focus on playing hockey … it’s not fair for the focus to be on me before the season even starts. We have new players on our team, the focus should be on that,” he said.
Bergevin said he’s open to holding talks during the season, as he has in the past, and added Subban is “a player we like a lot, we want to keep him in Montreal, we’ll get a deal done.”
It’s not the only move Bergevin must contemplate.
The plain – and largely unspoken – truth is the Canadiens are a team in transition, and will be looking at a lot of thorny
Captain Brian Gionta, who is recovering from biceps surgery and could miss the season opener, is in the final year of his contract, as is defenceman Andrei Markov.
Four other defencemen could become free agents next spring: Francis Bouillon, Murray, Raphael Diaz and the injured Alexei Emelin, whose return may be delayed beyond November.
The team has established young stars – players such as Subban, goalie Carey Price and winger Max Pacioretty – but is waiting for emerging youngsters Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Jarred Tinordi to catch up.
In the meantime, Montreal must count on aging players like Gionta, Markov and Daniel Brière, recently bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Not that the latter worries much about his role.
“I’ve been thinking about it for two months now, but it’s like the first day, to be part of the Montreal Canadiens organization is a little surreal. … I’m really anxious for it to start,” the 35-year-old Gatineau, Que., native said.
If Brière admits to butterflies, the laconic Price said he’s comfortable with the pressure of bouncing back from a down ending last year – a late-season slump followed by an iffy playoff showing – even if a Team Canada 2014 Olympic berth hangs in the balance.
“The bottom line is I want to play well, no matter what,” he said.
At the end of last year, Price caused a minor furore with tongue-in-cheek comments that he felt like a hobbit in a hole playing net in Montreal.
“I think it was blown up a little too much … there’s a lot human beings out there who are homebodies,” he said by way of explanation.
Working back from a damaged knee suffered in the playoffs, Price will have the benefit of working with new goalie coach Stéphane Waite, who tutored Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford to Stanley Cups in Chicago.
In sum, the goalie feels good, the players say they’re ready for the higher expectations. The Habs are certainly bigger and meaner than they were last year.
As to whether they’re better, Bergevin may be right to urge patience before answering.